Back to top

Shifting the focus from disability to ability

16 November 2020

The topic of disability is still fraught with myths, stigma and shame, particularly in the context of the workplace. Most people don’t feel safe or comfortable enough to open up and talk about their disabilities at work and these conversations tend to remain hushed and held behind closed doors, especially when it comes to “invisible” disabilities. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), only 61% of people diagnosed with a mental disability disclose their condition to their employer. If these discussions do take place, the focus is typically on the impairment or perceived deficiencies of the person with a disability, as opposed to what they can do and the value they are able to add.

The 3rd of November through to the 3rd of December marks Disability Rights Awareness Month in South Africa and the month concludes with International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which is celebrated globally on the 3rd of December. This month is therefore the ideal opportunity to start the conversation and shift the spotlight to focus on the skills and abilities of people with disabilities, as opposed to their presumed inadequacies.

As South Africa continues to grapple with the grim realities of poverty, inequality and unemployment, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have only served to drive these challenges to crisis levels. The need for social and economic upliftment has never been greater, especially for people with disabilities who have historically been amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. According to Statistics South Africa, the national disability prevalence rate is 7.5 percent, yet employees with disabilities make up only 1 percent of the workforce.

Skills development is perhaps the single most important instrument available to empower an individual, lift them out of poverty and set them on a path to be economically active. Investing in continuous education and training is essential in order to create better opportunities, bridge the skills gap and grow the economy. The old adage about teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime still holds true. Creating a culture of lifelong learning is essential in order to facilitate and enhance employability as well as personal development and social inclusion. While the primary goals of skills training include job creation and reducing unemployment, another beneficial spin-off is developing individuals with the knowledge and ability to be self-employed, run their own businesses and earn an independent living.


While some corporates may be keen to participate in skills development and learnership projects, due to various factors, including lockdown restrictions and headcount freezes, many are unable to implement the ideal model, which involves accommodating learners (particularly, people with disabilities) at their own company premises. An effective alternative is to invest in Enterprise Development initiatives. As a consultancy specialising in disability management in the workplace as well as skills development, Progression has introduced the concept of “Enterprise Development Hubs” as a viable option for employers who may not be able to host learners in their own environments.

The aim of this model is for companies to invest in educating and growing new learners in an environment that will enhance and develop their skills to benefit their overall career prospects.

The hubs are structured as SMMEs which are linked to skills development for previously disadvantaged learners and the intention is that these small businesses can become sustainable and thrive on their own, without necessarily relying on corporate South Africa for future employment. Each hub is developed to allow learners an opportunity to establish a business which they can benefit from, either through employment or potential profit share, thereby creating a more sustainable future for themselves. The focus is on skills transfer and providing the learners with the genuine, real-life, invaluable workplace experience required to ensure they are fully prepared to enter the workforce or alternatively, to start a business of their own, using the knowledge and competencies acquired during the course of the programme.

Many employers are still reluctant to take on learners with disabilities, mainly due to misconceptions relating to the perceived challenges that these learners may pose in their space. The concept of “reasonable accommodation” exists in order to allow for modifications or adjustments to a work environment or job to enable an employee to perform their role despite having a disability. In South Africa, reasonable accommodation is ensured through the Employment Equity Act No. 55 of 1998. The concept of reasonable accommodation, as defined in the Employment Equity Act, is designed to provide a fair, non-judgemental, accessible mechanism to explore the possibilities which exist within a business, with the view to minimising the barriers and focusing on the skills and value of individuals. Although reasonable accommodation is supported through legislation, many workplaces remain largely inaccessible for persons with disabilities. This is often as a result of false impressions or a lack of understanding around the scope and methods of implementing reasonable accommodation within the workplace. Although most employers assume that reasonable accommodation comes at a very high cost, in reality, many of these measures can be easily implemented and at a minimal cost.

A working example of an uncomplicated reasonable accommodation measure in action is demonstrated by a learner in Progression’s Sewing Hub. Refilwe has Spinal Tuberculosis and is paralysed from the waist down. At first glance, you would assume that she would not be able to work as a seamstress due to the need to operate the foot pedal on the sewing machine. Watch the video to see how Refilwe has been reasonably accommodated to enable her to be part of this inspiring programme, display her capabilities and realise her full potential.

It is evident that many of the barriers faced by people with disabilities stem from the perceptions, beliefs and attitudes of those around them, resulting in ongoing discrimination and lack of inclusion. This concept arises from the traditional medical model of disability, which places emphasis on the individual’s condition and the limitations it may present. In recent decades, there has been a distinct shift towards the more enlightened social model which suggests that barriers and limitations for people with disabilities exist as a result of the way in which our workplaces and societies are structured, rather than as a result of the disability. This concept advocates that we look within ourselves and our long-established and deep-rooted societal norms in order to change our thinking and begin to move the focus to the abilities of an individual, rather than their perceived limitations. It’s time for a shift in mind-set and the way we relate to difference – in the words of the insightful educator, Ignatio Estrada, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” DM




Please visit the official Government information portal for Coronavirus by clicking HERE

Skip to content